Airport, bridge big stories in St. James

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 3, 2002


VACHERIE – In a year plagued with a number of crisises from terrorism to swinging interest rates, officials in St. James Parish recently talked about five significant points making their mark within the parish’s borders.

Parish President Dale Hymel said he felt one of the most important events from this past year has been the Airport Authority receiving the state and federal funding needed to move forward with its studies for the new intermodal airport. The Airport Authority was created in 1992, but the majority of the studies have been put on hold because of the lacking funds.

With this new state and federal money, the Airport Authority has completed financial and feasibility studies to help determine how well the airport would work in St. James Parish, if it would work in the parish and its impact on the parish. Risk analysis studies were also done to see if the facility would generate enough revenues to repay the bonds loaned for its construction.

Currently, the Airport Authority is in the process of selecting possible sites for the airport. Two sites will ultimately be chosen, a preferred site and an alternate site. The new airport will only handle cargo, because of objections from the officials at the New Orleans airport. However, the intermodal airport will benefit from its location along the Mississippi River, nearby railroad tracks and truck shipping.

Hymel said no matter where the airport is built, the magnitude of the amount of jobs created will have a tremendous effect on the entire state.

“Never before have we had one project this big,” Hymel continued, “and mo matter where this is built, it will have an impact on the people in St. James Parish.”

Hymel explained workers at the airport, as with most other jobs, will want to live within a 20-30 minute commute. Even if the airport is not located in St. James Parish, it is expected to be within a 30 minute driving range, which would place some of its workers in St. James Parish homes. Hymel said with an increased population, the nearby area will also attract businesses, such as shopping centers and entertainment needed to help support an increased number of residents.

Hymel said he received the most political pressure in 2001 from his constituents concerning the connection between the Veteran’s Memorial bridge and Louisiana Highway 3127. Hymel explained it took 16 years to finish the bridge and it has been one obstacle after another to finish the right of ways connecting it to Highway 3127.

“For about four years when the bridge was being built, it was only a superstructure. A lot of tourists would ask me, ‘why are you tearing down the bridge,'” said Hymel.

However, the state has finally appropriated about $2.5 million to begin work clearing trees and preparing the land for the roadway.

“Once the state officials invest money in a project, they see it through. They won’t waste the $2.5 million,” Hymel added. He said he hopes the project will be finished in about four years and people will not have to drive along the winding River Road, which can be a safety issue during sugar cane harvesting. The new connection will also provide a thoroughfare for economic development on the Westbank.

Sheriff Willy Martin Jr. said 2001’s most memorable happening was when a 14-year-old boy was arrested for a double homicide in April. Martin said the youth was charged with killing his mother and father and will be charged as an adult.

“Otherwise it was a pretty good year,” said Martin. “We’re unfortunate we had three murders, but we’ve noticed in 2001 the three homicides were all in people’s homes between family or live-ins, not out on the streets.” Martin also said the number of violent crimes were down in 2001, although the exact numbers were not yet in.

Hymel was happy to announce the opening of the South Vacherie backwater control structure. The structure is the first of its kind in the parish, using a pumping system, instead of gravity feed, to keep backwater from coming in from Lake Des Allemands.

“St. James Parish had more of a problem with flooding from backwater than from rainwater,” explained Hymel. The structure cost about $1.5 million and opened in August.

Two other openings, the tourist center along Highway 61 and the reopening of the Kaiser plant, have had a positive effect on the parish’s economy. Hymel explained sections of the plant were rebuilt following an explosion while workers at the plant were on a union strike.

“Industry is big in St. James Parish and it’s a good sign to see the plant back up and running,” said Hymel.

He said since its opening in July of this year, the tourist center has been “a huge success. It surpassed our estimated number of visitors,” Hymel added.

Prior to December, the center had seen approximately 700 visitors. With the bonfire festivals for Christmas, almost 1,000 people passed through its doors.

“It’s something the people in the parish are proud of,” said Hymel. “It was done right, by professionals and it’s eye appealing.”